From 1979 to 1990 my father’s Jewish bookstore, J. Roth/Bookseller, was located in a small neighborhood known as Pico-Robertson. Squeezed between Mid-City/Carthay Circle and Beverly Hills/West L.A., it was once a quiet residential neighborhood with a sleepy retail corridor along Pico. Now it’s the bustling heart of Jewish Los Angeles. Yet despite how Jewish the neighborhood might seem, its cultural diversity reflects a range of peoples from Europe to Central Asia to the Middle East. This is evident in all the store signs that advertise Persian, Israeli, and traditional Eastern European/Russian Jewish products and foods. There’s also a vibrant kosher restaurant scene up and down Pico with a diverse selection of cuisines, suggesting that the neighborhood’s acculturated, middle-class demographic is aware of and open to the culinary influences and fads circulating through L.A.
A Map of Pico Blvd.
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That diversity seems evocative to me, not only of the contingent and changeable nature of Jewish identities and cultures, but also of the wide-ranging understanding of Jewish literature retailed in my father’s bookstore. Today, the new immigrants and food trends that define Pico-Robertson as a Jewish place reflect current global flows in people, consumer goods, religiosity, and especially capital. Pico-Robertson is both a contemporary mixture and a historical layering of dynamic social relations, linkages, and memories (Cresswell 70). In my father’s day, that cultural dynamism and socially meaningful interconnection between people and material things was evident in the space of his bookstore and, especially, in the collection of books he sold in the store.
My father remembers that he chose the location on Pico because it was fresh territory with clean streets and neat storefronts located at the farther, western edge of the neighborhood’s fast-growing Jewish population. It was free of the clutter and Jewish kitsch he associated with the aging Fairfax Ave. neighborhood, the previous center of Jewish retailing in L.A. The arrival of J. Roth/Bookseller and Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles, which also opened in 1979 even farther west on 9760 W. Pico Blvd., signaled a new phase in the neighborhood’s development.
The influx of new Orthodox organizations quickly reshaped the retailing environment; the neighborhood’s businesses became more identifiably Jewish, with restaurants proudly advertising their kosher certifications. It was a major moment, I remember, when Dunkin Donuts opened with bona fide rabbinic approval of their donuts’ kashrut. The excitement was only matched by the opening in 1985 of Milky Way, an upscale dairy restaurant owned by Steven Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler.
Photographs of my father’s bookstore in Judaica Book News and The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles reveal the care he took to arrange and display his books, the meticulous presentation of his collection. Yet just as important to the store’s outward face was its inward floor plan, which reflected a certain narrative about the collection. Following the books in one direction, customers were clearly led from the past to the present, from a Jew’s foundational reading toward works that, in some ways, depended on previous knowledge to contextualize their Jewishness. Traversing the store from the opposite direction simply turned such a pedagogical narrative into an archaeology of Jewish writing. Each wall could also be read in itself as a minor commentary on Jewish literature; most evocative was the far wall, which was telling in its reflection of my father’s and, by extension, of publishers’ thinking about the historical succession of Jewish writing: Bible, History/Holocaust/Zionism, Philosophy/ Jewish Thought, Fiction/Poetry, and Yiddish/Cookbooks—a spatial narrative whose punch line is “So now let’s eat.”
Below is a floor plan of the store. If you hover over the image, small icons will pop-up.
- Green icons indicate text
- Red icons indicate image
- Begin at the entrance and go clockwise
One of my own photographs of the store also reveals a prominent and very telling detail of the store’s presentation. Rightward from the entrance, at the far end of the new-book table, was a large support column on which hung a sepia-tone photograph of a bearded old Jew in an old-fashioned, wide-brim biberhit, a beaver hat. He is leaning on a shtender, a lectern, in front of a Torah ark and looking straight into the camera. That was my great-great-grandfather, Dovid Roth. His is an image of Jewish memory and authenticity that privately advertised my father’s ownership of the collection and publicly advertised its cultural purpose. It also turned the customer into the object of a Jewish gaze. Given the composition of the photograph and its placement just above eye level, my great-great-grandfather functioned as a kind of store greeter, welcoming and surveying all who came in. His regard and appearance assured customers, especially new ones in search of a title like Hayim Donin’s To Be a Jew or Morris Kertzer’s What Is a Jew?, that they were in the right place. What I am suggesting here is that the consciousness that Walter Benjamin, his essay “Unpacking My Library,” attributes to a collection—a consciousness that is both an extension and reflection of the owner’s mind and tastes (67)—finds symbolic expression in this photograph of a forefather. It illustrates the nature of my father’s “living library” as Benjamin describes a book collection (66): seeing and being seen within a space organized under this sign of memory and by the memory-driven spatial narratives of the store’s floor plan created a metaphoric Jewish community where both the books and the customers were subjects and objects, actors and acted upon insofar as each took possession of the other.
To put it plainly, Jewish memory and Jewish identity accrued social meanings through the customer’s interactions with the store’s collection. Benjamin helps us to see that J. Roth/Bookseller offered customers an opportunity to peruse and possess the personal recollections, creative works, and scholarly interpretations attesting to past and present varieties of Jewish identities and historical experiences. It offered them, in other words, an opportunity to define and be defined by their own Jewish collections. Or, to borrow an insight from James Clifford, the store exemplified that in the modern, consumer oriented West, collecting things is an extension of “the idea that identity is a kind of wealth (of objects, knowledge, memories, experience),” and that the ways we collect objects help remind us “of the artifices we employ to gather a world around us” (218, 229). This timeline, for example, is both a history of one bookseller’s world and a record of the objects and memories that made up the J. Roth/Bookseller collection.
My father’s bookstore was, therefore, an artifice too, a space that enabled a certain kind of cultural and self-possession. To shop at the store was an engagement in self-definition and self-explanation. It acted out in small, and for purposes that did not require that one identify as Jewish so much as with Jews, the larger dynamic of my father’s quest to gather a meaningful world around himself through a collection of books. The store, and its gathering of books as objects, reveal modern Jewish literature to be a business, a network of human behaviors, transactions, and deeds in and of their time, and reveal bookstores as places where ideas and capital collide as literal bodies. This knowledge does not so much change our notions of Jewish literature as reassert what is tangible yet transient about it (definitions, like possessions, are fugitive goods), without reducing such transience to the vagaries of biological or cultural identity.
As my list of J. Roth/Bookseller bestsellers suggests, the varied collection within my father’s bookstore also underlined that a “modern” Jewish literature is not self-evidently a canon of works produced at a particular moment in history or even strictly by Jews. What is modern about that literature is implicit in its complex of responses to, improvisations on, and commercial interrelationships with classical Jewish texts; Jewish mystical writing and the Gentile interpretations inspired by it during the Renaissance; works that illuminate the ragged edges of Jewish affiliation like Uriel Acosta’s Exemplar Humanæ Vitæ or Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus; and works by non-Jews that claim to describe Jews, such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew—or even The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, both of which my father kept in a drawer of his desk available for sale, should someone ask for them. In addition, “literature,” as it was constellated in my father’s bookstore, quite obviously meant more than just works of fiction and poetry.
As a commercial library of Jewish memory, then—memory of patriarchs and matriarchs, of law and custom, languages and commentary, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the diverse histories of a transnational Diaspora—my father’s bookstore offered customers a social and cultural opportunity to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct a modern Jewish literature of their own. But it had its limits; the physical space of the store was finite. It was not, and my father never intended it to be, a version of Borges’s Library of Babel, that labyrinthine metonymy for the mind in which the entirety of human literary production would be cataloged and preserved for all time. And it was subject to the commercial and cultural marketplace, liable to competition and to public statements of discontent with the collection, such as when certain customers felt compelled to turn Lev Raphael’s Dancing on Tisha B’Av face down on the new-book table because its frank portrayal of gay Jewish life offended them.
In these ways, the store revealed its vulnerability and historical contingency, foreshadowing its demise. Walter Benjamin, in “Unpacking My Library,” observes that a book collection like my father’s is both a personal and communal inheritance, and
“inheritance is the soundest way of acquiring a collection. For a collector’s attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner’s feeling of responsibility toward his property. Thus it is, in the highest sense, the attitude of an heir, and the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility” (66).
Yet there was blindness along with Benjamin’s insight. The transmissibility of a collection may be its most distinguished trait, but it is not a given. There may be no one willing to purchase the collection, or the inheritors may decline their inheritance. The market may dry up or move on; after all, and especially in the West, the past is an endlessly regenerating commodity. And if objects share in our subjectivity, then they, too, are mortal.
In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake revealed the necessity for seismic retrofitting of all buildings in Los Angeles, and the landlord of 9427 Pico began work on the property. The store took on the look of a construction site. At the same time, the book business changed yet again. In the 1980s, S. I. Newhouse and Rupert Murdoch were transforming publishing in America, merging older houses and ruthlessly demanding that every title pull its weight in profits (Schiffrin 82). More important, by the mid-1980s, the mall bookstore chains—Walden Books, B. Dalton, and Crown Books—reached the limit of their expansion. They were sold off to outfits like Kmart and Barnes and Noble that developed the new superstore model “with several times the number of titles and the amount of floorspace found in the typical chain outlet.…Superstores were a hybrid of the large independent bookstores that developed in the 1980s, in part as a reaction to the competition presented by the chains, and the large specialty stores, or ‘category killers,’ that had developed in several other consumer good fields” (Miller 50).
My father understood that these new book superstores could and would undercut his prices, and he even understood how attractive a target his extensive backlist presented to them. But his strategy for facing these challenges was to move his store in November 1990 to larger quarters in Beverly Hills, adjacent to Beth Jacob Congregation and Hillel Hebrew Academy, and thereby mimic a superstore model. The new store was modern, box-like, and cold. Though it was only six blocks from the old location, to the Los Angeles Jewish community it seemed as if the bookstore had become too upscale and had lost its taam, its Jewish taste.
For the first time, and in response to the superstores’ increasing pressure, my father began to stock ritual items, greeting cards, and gifts. He did so, however, with the same collector’s sensibility with which he had built up his book collection, and, ironically, this proved to be his undoing. His obsession with collecting blinded him to the dangers of the social changes taking place around him: the resurgence of Orthodox Judaism, the rise of the ba’al t’shuva phenomenon, and political developments in Israel that turned the question “Who is a Jew?” into an international Jewish brawl.
In addition, as Haym Soloveitchik observed, the shift of religious and cultural authority to texts and “their enshrinement as the sole source of authenticity” (339), though potentially a boon for my father’s business, instead provided a warrant for the newly religious to create litmus tests in order to discriminate between authentic and inauthentic texts. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, with its report of American Jews’ high rates of intermarriage, only fanned the flames.
My father responded to these changes by wearing a kippah during business hours (for the first time in his career, and not without complaint) and by simply collecting more Orthodox and traditional Jewish materials. The primary way that he did that was by inviting an Orthodox silver wholesaler and an Orthodox sofer, a scribe, to set up their shops within his store. He put the sofer behind the glass wall of a corner room that had originally separated his small collection of Jewish paintings from the book collection, thinking to show him off as an attraction.
Unwittingly, though, my father turned his store from a living library into a museum; his sofer exhibit, and the scribe’s performance of culture, suggested that authentic Jewish tradition belonged, literally, to religious insiders, relegating nonobservant outsiders to the role of audience and cultural tourists. (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 410) This undermined the very concept of the bookstore. What had once been hospitable and inviting space now appeared staged and contested. It discomforted, even alienated, the few remaining Reform and secular customers who had not already been lured away by the cheaper prices and caffeine-fueled socializing at the superstores. In the meantime, the sofer, who stayed in the store after my father closed up for the night, was busy with his own plans. In less than a year, he opened his own shop back on Pico Boulevard, the 613 Mitzvah Store, which carried only “kosher” sforim and ritual goods.
That signaled the end for my father’s bookstore. If the Jewish memory that materialized in his store can be said to have described a collective memory, it was only because my father, as a collector, gathered as much as would fit into that space. Once that memory collection—and, by extension, the definition of modern Jewish literature that it described—was broken up and demarcated by Jewish book publishers, retailers, and consumers into rigidly policed categories of classical and modern, traditional and secular, authentic and inauthentic, its purchase became subject to availability. By the spring of 1994, the shelves and tables of J. Roth / Bookseller were thinned out and filled with gaps, and both Jewish and non-Jewish publishers began refusing my father’s orders. In June, he sold what stock remained to another Jewish bookstore that took over his lease, and though he could have declared bankruptcy, he instead worked out repayment schedules with his many creditors. He paid the last of them off in 2004.
Today, Jewish bookstores, like American bookstores in general, have reverted to the commercially and economically more feasible model of their late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century forebears, albeit one now buttressed by new technologies. No Jewish bookstore that I know of carries only books, just as no general bookstore can survive without offering, if not the nonliterary inventory, at least the level of service of the old department stores. That is the secret to the survival of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon; City Lights in San Francisco; Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California; the Tattered Cover in Denver; Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi; Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida; and Kramerbooks in Washington, D.C.—among the last of the large independents, a fact that they all advertise on their Internet websites.
Bookstores come and go, however; insolvency is an ever-present hazard of doing business. Bemoaning the end of a particular model of the American bookstore, taking offense that no one in the new book superstores “seems to love books, or even to like them, except as money makers” (Perry 109), simply underscores the one enduring aspect of the bookstore: it is a culturally invaluable space on which to project notions about writing and reading that express, and allay, anxiety about changes in literature and literacy.
Change, though, is inevitable. In Brooklyn, Eichler’s Judaica Superstore, the largest Orthodox-oriented bookstore in America, retails a very well stocked but narrowly conceived selection of Jewish books in Hebrew, English, and, increasingly, Yiddish. The four largest nondenominational Jewish bookstores—Westside Judaica and J. Levine Books & Judaica in Manhattan, Pinskers Judaica Center in Pittsburgh (home to 1-800-Judaism and Judaism.com), and Rosenblum’s World of Judaica in Chicago (home to alljudaica.com)—offer more widely conceived selections, though their backlists are thin and their stock is still aimed primarily at tradition-minded customers. All organize the dynamic and varied shapes of Jewish literature according to the habits of a new generation of American Jews. They forward a definition of that literature reflective of the more stringent tastes of those buyers and sellers who currently wield the greatest desire for, and ascribe the highest value to, the religion section of the collection.
Westside Judaica, Manhattan
J. Levine Books & Judaica, Manhattan
Pinkers Judaica Center, Pittsburgh
Rosenblum’s World of Judaica, Manhattan
All images of J. Roth Bookseller courtesy of Laurence Roth.
Desmazieres, Erik. “La Salles des planetes.” The Library of Congress: Jung and Jorge Luis Borges. <http://myloc.gov/Exhibitions/redbook/legacy/ExhibitObjects/JungAndBorges…>
United Jewish Communities: The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01. <http://www.jewishfederations.org/local_includes/downloads/4606.pdf>
Benjamin, Walter, and Hannah Arendt. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.
Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. “Objects of Ethnography.” Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Ed. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Perry, Jack. “Bookstores, Communist and Capitalist,” The American Scholar 55.1 (Winter 1986): 107-111.
Schiffrin, Andre. The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read. London: Verso, 2000.
Soloveitchik, Haym. “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy.” Jews in America: A Contemporary Reader. Ed. Roberta Rosenberg Farber and Chaim I. Waxman. Hanover: Published by University Press of New England [for] Brandeis University Press, 1999.
Youtube. Stock Footage: Loma Prieta Stock Footage. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TaW9rqTy_Yk>